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Born 100 years ago, Han Young-Suk helped the world discover Korean folk dance

Korean dancer Han Young-Suk made her US debut at Duke University in 1986.
Korean dancer Han Young-Suk made her US debut at Duke University in 1986.Jay Anderson

Feb. 2, marks 100 years since the birth of Han Young-Suk, one of the 20th century’s most influential practitioners of Korean traditional dance. She was born in Cheonan, some 50 miles south of Seoul, into an unhappy childhood — until her grandfather, Han Seong-Jun, brought her to Seoul and began to teach her dancing. The elder Han (1875-1941) was perhaps the most important figure in the modern history of Korean folk dance. After the late-19th-century end of the 500-year Joseon dynasty, he traveled throughout Korea, learning from surviving gisaeng, female entertainers who danced for aristocrats or at the former royal court.

Out of this knowledge, Han Seong-Jun arranged, assembled, and, to some extent, created many of the dances in the Korean folk repertoire: derived from ancient vernacular and ritualistic sources, but refashioned specifically for theatrical performance. The pattern can be seen in two of Han Young-Suk’s specialties, salpuri — the form and name invoking ancient rituals for cleansing evil spirits — and taepyeongmu, expressing a desire for national peace and prosperity. Both dances are clothed in older Korean traditions: the salpuri dancer, for instance, uses a long bolt of white silk, echoing the gisaeng’s scarf dances, while taepyeongmu dancers wear the costumes of Joseon kings and queens. But the basic forms of both dances as known today were the work of Han Seong-Jun, introduced by him and Han Young-Suk in the 1930s.

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The process coincided with Korean upheaval and division. The dissolution of the Joseon dynasty resulted in Japanese colonization, under which the Hans established their newly-arranged corpus of folk dance. After World War II and the defeat of Japan, Korea witnessed partition, further war, and decades of oppressive governments on both sides of the 38th parallel; Han Young-Suk carried on the work, further developing the dances, teaching, and performing both in Korea and abroad. Dance forms that had been assertions of Korean identity under Japanese occupation now became expressions of Korean resiliency, invoking a perspective and temper historically beyond the domestic and global strains of the Cold War. (“A traditional style,” Han once said, “is a model of modernity.”)

In 1988, Han performed for her largest audience, dancing salpuri at the closing ceremonies of the Seoul Olympics. For a few minutes, the dance’s melancholy, highly-charged stillness, at odds with the athletic triumph surrounding it, turned the occasion into a rite of acknowledgment, a symbolic exorcism of a century of Korean turmoil. Han died the following year. Like her grandfather, she was buried in her taepyeongmu dress: artistic royalty.

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Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.